AA President's blog

Our campaigning for more lay-bys begins to pay off

We are constantly campaigning for safer roads. We think about safety of our patrol force and safety of all road users.

Per mile driven motorways are our safest roads. 

Ever since the late 1970s, when I cruised up the country to Newcastle University in a Citroen Dyane with Tom Robinson’s 2-4-6-8 Motorway blasting away, motorways with hard shoulders gave reassurance. Now, the hard-shoulder is under threat with so-called ‘smart’ motorways where the hard-shoulder is in use permanently (all-lane running) or temporarily with dynamic hard shoulders. 

Having spent much of my professional life associated with roads, I confess I do like motorways. However, recent AA research has found that a proportion of drivers are worried about driving on them.

Using data from the AA Route Planner we found that drivers drove an extra 600 million miles per year just to avoid motorways. 

Most people were never taught to drive on motorways so worry about how to join faster-moving traffic or overtaking lorries. That is why we supported the proposals to allow learners onto motorways with an instructor in a dual-control car. In fact, my son Finbar was the first learner on a motorway with AA Driving School.

A lack of motorway training is probably also why we have so many middle-lane hogs and tailgaters.

The AA Charitable Trust produced ‘Drive Motorway’ courses to eliminate fears and phobias and to update drivers on changes to the layout and rules, including advice to drivers about breakdowns on smart motorways.

Spacing of emergency areas

Our biggest issue with smart motorways is the lack of Emergency Refuge Areas (ERAs) on stretches where the hard shoulder has been removed. 

The M42 ‘smart motorway’ pilot was deemed a great success but rather than build on that, we have changed the goal posts. The M42 has lay-bys every 600 to 800m.

The current rules state you only need lay-bys (or exits or service areas) every 2.5km (about 1.5 miles). We would like to see twice as many. The hard shoulder can be dangerous but not as dangerous as a live lane. Of course, drivers have a responsibility not to run out of petrol and to keep their cars up to scratch but unpreventable breakdowns happen. If you do get stuck in a live lane, the official advice is to dial 999.

I have listened to harrowing calls from AA members broken down in live traffic lanes. I have heard the fear in their voices and in one case the subsequent CRASH ... and then silence. We have had two more cases in the last month.

Disneyland theory

Walt Disney is said to have worked out the ideal spacing of litter bins at Disneyland. He reckoned that if the person could see a litter bin most would use it. If they couldn’t see a bin that proportion dropped dramatically. “Disneyland Theory” says that it takes the average park-goer about 30 steps before they toss trash on the ground (hence the park’s trash cans every 30 paces).

It's similar on motorways. If a driver, even with a blow-out or engine smoke, can see a lay-by, they are much more likely to make it to that relatively safe haven. If they can’t see one, they're more likely to stop in a live lane, putting lives at risk and causing congestion.

Vision Zero

Our aspiration should be for the safest roads in the world. We should embrace vision zero. Smart motorways are a quick way of increasing much-needed capacity on the cheap. Officials and ministers claim that our concerns should be evidence-based and point to sections of the M25 where collisions have reduced. This is missing the point.

If we want the safest roads how can we argue that breaking down in a live lane of traffic is safer than being able to pull onto a hard-shoulder or into a lay-by? Eighty per cent of drivers in an AA Populus poll claim this has made the motorways less safe. I am with them no matter what the official figures say.

It will only take one catastrophic crash to give us an evidence base and frankly I don’t want that. Supporters should consider whether they would want their children to break down in a live lane. I certainly wouldn’t no matter how many red Xs are flashing or whatever lane detection radars are fitted.

I asked Chris Grayling MP, Transport Secretary, what he would do if he broke down on a smart motorway in a live lane. He said he would get out, so I suggested quite bluntly, to the horror of his officials, that he would be killed.

There is good work going on to provide better signage, countdown markers, coloured road surfaces, information campaigns, and Red X enforcement. This is welcome. But even with all of that, we still need more frequent places to stop.

Don't overlook congestion

The other element over-looked, in the clamour to rip up hard-shoulders, is that a car blocking a live lane causes considerable congestion. Cars broken down on a hard-shoulder or in an ERA may result in unnecessary ‘rubber-necking’ but don’t cause miles of congestion.

The emergency services at the Select Committee worried about the extra time it takes them to reach a serious crash with all-lane running. Any extension of the “golden hour” after a serious injury can have fatal consequences. The "golden hour" is the time within which medical intervention by a specialist trauma team has the greatest chance of saving life. If more than 60 minutes has elapsed by the time the patient reaches the operating table, the chances of survival fall sharply.

We have taken the AA campaign to the corridors of power and had numerous meetings with the Transport Secretary, Roads Minister, CEO of Highways England, Select Committee, opposition MPs, SURVIVE group, police etc. They were getting pretty fed up with us but at last we are getting somewhere.

10 more lay-bys for the M25

It was announced earlier this week and we had an exclusive article in The Times pointing out that in the future the spacing between lay-bys would be reduced from every 1.5 miles to every mile and that ten more lay-bys will be added to the M25 smart motorway sections.

This is progress that will help our patrols with recoveries, will help our members and will help save lives.

I want to continue having happy memories playing 2-4-6-8 Motorway by the Tom Robinson Band rather than switching to Chris Rea’s “Road to hell”. So the campaign continues …..  

Edmund (30 May 2019)

Buy breakdown cover

We get more people back on the road than anyone else